Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Oh He Is’ by Karen Heuler

with one comment

I’ve been enjoying taking part in Niall Harrison’s short story club over at Torque Control. This week’s story is ‘Oh He Is’ by Karen Heuler which I thought I would post about now since I’m going to be out of the country on Sunday.

Unfortunately ‘Oh He Is’ does not get off to a good start:

There was a smell in the streets, past the storefronts with the children in their beds, their limbs barely moving, their eyes closed (it was late). The smell was intoxicating, vanilla, pineapple, butter, cinnamon and some spice, some spice. The smell caught at the tips of open windows, waving like a cat’s tail, just a little, before going in. Then it coiled along the floor, at the corners, under the doorways, sipping at each room, exhaling a puff of it, a tease.

There is an awful lot wrong with this opening paragraph and most of it is to do with not knowing when to stop. In the first sentence, the final section in parentheses unnecessarily makes clear what was already implied. In the second sentence, the repetition of “some spice” is presumably meant to conjure up the ineffable but again adds nothing and feels both lazy and clumsy. In fact, the whole laundry list of popular scents is pretty uninspired. The third sentence is fine, although “just a little” is superfluous and over-egging it. Then, in the final sentence, we have the smell “sipping” which is the opposite of what it is actually doing, as is made clear by the very next clause of the sentence.

Taken as a whole the paragraph is trying too hard, it is striving to make an impact but just comes across as cluttered. This very nearly put me off the entire story but I perservered. Then I got to the end of the first section and almost gave up again. This is because at the point it became obvious that ‘Oh He Is’ was a reworking of The Pied Piper Of Hamelin. Now, I’ve got nothing against such reworkings but I really wish there weren’t so bloody many of them (we’ve already had one in this short story club). Revisiting familiar material can be rewarding for both writers and readers but it can also be a sign of stagnation and laziness and, speaking personally, I need a break from them.

I kept going though. We soon return to smell: “She smelled of spices: cumin, perhaps, and lemongrass.” I don’t believe for a moment that she smells like this. In a cheap attempt to add mystery and exoticism to her character Heuler has just plucked two spices at random. We are back to the problem of fabulism, of idle noodling and uncommitted allusions.

And there are more lists. When, at the conclusion of the story, the piper is strangled, “his face flew from scorn to pity to lust.” Even in a fable I find this an unlikely series of facial emotions for someone being murdered. His murderer then “built a cottage next to him and planted herbs and spices at the head and foot of his coffin, starting with lavender, thyme, anise, lemon and rue.” Leaving aside the fact lemon is not a herb (lemon balm is), Heuler is again relying not on the precision of her prose but on an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.

‘Oh He Is’ is one of those stories which requires its world to be unpopulated. The three characters who live in the town appear to be the only residents and they are allowed to play out their little drama in isolation. This betrays a lack of interest in the world Heuler has created; how it fits together, how it came to be, how it might really smell. Into this void she simply throws anything she thinks might stick.

Written by Martin

1 October 2009 at 08:30

One Response

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  1. […] didn’t care for it: When, at the conclusion of the story, the piper is strangled, “his face flew from scorn to pity […]

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